Jul 12, 2017

Is popular support for city growth disappearing?

No matter what experts think, slowing population growth – and hence immigration – seems to be a very powerful political idea winning support across the demographic board

Alan Davies — Editor of The Urbanist

Alan Davies

Editor of The Urbanist

“Melbourne’s growth comes at a cost” (source: The Age)

On Saturday, The Age ran another article in its series on population growth in Melbourne, highlighting the impact on “housing affordability, urban boundaries, infrastructure and patience” (Crammed: Ten ideas for dealing with Melbourne’s booming population growth).

This time The Age sought “workable solutions” and canvassed “the ideas of some of Melbourne’s leading minds in search of a better way forward”. The result was these “ten ideas for dealing with Melbourne’s booming population growth”:

  1. Densify middle Melbourne
  2. Free up capital funding for schools
  3. Fifty per cent public transport by 2050
  4. More government-built housing
  5. Replace stamp duty with land tax
  6. Direct population to regions
  7. Protect our food bowl
  8. Slow down population growth
  9. Trial tolls on key roads
  10. Downsize and diversify

Although the list is a bit mixed-up (e.g. some are objectives, some actions, some negatives; there are big differences in scope), the underlying ideas are familiar and, other than number 8, are mostly consistent with what I and others propose. They fit well with Infrastructure Victoria’s top three recommended actions i.e. increase densities, implement transport network pricing, build more social housing.

I might look at these separately another time, but the thing that really struck me was the comments on the article made by nominally left-leaning readers of The Age; I felt like I was reading the Herald Sun. Many readers seem to:

  • Think population growth is far and away the main problem
  • Believe high levels of immigration benefit politicians, but not them
  • Have little confidence in the idea that infrastructure and planning can deal effectively with growth
  • Want to keep Melbourne pretty much as it is
  • See slowing population growth down, and/or shifting growth to regional centres, as the answer
  • Have limited understanding of the pro-immigration economic arguments
  • Accept unquestioningly the population projections are an accurate description of the future

The Age poses this question in the video accompanying the article:

The question now being asked is can Melbourne keep up? Or is it time for governments to slow population growth?

If those Fairfax readers who write comments are even roughly representative of general community views, it seems support for the second question is getting stronger. The case for a high level of immigration hasn’t been made or communicated well. Neither has the idea that infrastructure – or government – can deal effectively with the challenges of a rapidly growing city.

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24 thoughts on “Is popular support for city growth disappearing?

  1. John Mant

    While not anti immigration, Alan was making the important point that immigration policy is an urban management issue and should be addressed as such. Years ago, my then boss, Tom Uren, clearly understood that and sought to muscle in on immigration. The Department, acting typically, moved to block us and protect the continuance of its particular output (and employment). Generally it was disinterested in the outcomes, apart from its Minister driven, and welcome, intergration programs.
    Today, the immediate beneficiaries of a high population growth seem to have an even greater hold on policy. The State planning departments have never been good at urban management. Despite some gallant attempts they have resisted efforts to restock with staff equipped to manage rather than merely use zoning to separate and sterilise land uses. In the current climate their sole performance measure seems to have been reduced to the number of residential rezonings achieved.
    Our cities are not managed but reflect merely the dominance a few specialist output agencies, each one employing members of a different guild. There is nowhere where the multifaceted issue of population policy is competently addressed, leaving it to the brave few to lift their head up and have a go. No wonder there is growing anger.

  2. Roger Clifton

    Yes, let’s tax land! If each lot of land had its own tax file number and paid its taxes annually, the revenue would benefit poor and rich alike by going straight to Treasury without falling into the deft hands of the tax-dodging machine. Foreign owners and trusts would similarly be unable to shuffle the obligation to pay taxes into some loophole. Couch potatoes waiting for their oldies to die would find their windfall had already been nibbled away by the taxman. Land tax, good idea.

  3. Vivo

    Bit late to this particular debate, but my two cents.
    Governments are in a bind because for the current business cycle of 25 years or so, population growth and credit expansion has been the growth model for the south east of Australia. It is now slowing, as credit expansion slows and it is most evident in the lack of wage growth. Victoria has even gone a little backwards in per capita terms. So turn off the immigration inflows and growth stops. Everyone that has tipped a fortune of borrowed money into property suddenly is staring at negative equity.
    Its a terrible choice and one that governments, state and federal have kicked the can on since 2008. Of course the problem has been amplified by lousy urban planning and infrastructure provision, along with the massively inflated costs, mostly due to the property boom. Build anything now and much of the cost is either in buying land or paying wages that are tipping into mortgages.
    No doubt the pressure is building to lessen immigration. My money is on the economy beating the political process and a recession will see the inflows diminish.

  4. Ian Fraser

    Alan & others

    I’m going to put myself in the firing line by pointing out an argument about virtual inevitability and something we cannot realistically control.

    I say Australia cannot be like King Canute and hold back the tides of immigration from newly modernising nations to our north. We might be able to do it for a short period between now and the year 2100, if we vote to do so, but the pressure from Indo-Asia alone will build and build and in the big scheme of things we cannot easily defend ourselves as a fortress island either militarily or economically in the most probable future scenarios. Moreover, USA’s prominence is declining and China’s influence is growing rapidly, with only India as a culturally inclined balance to its potential for expansion in strategic influence in the region – yet India is still struggling to self-organise.

    In 2016 alone there were about 43-44 million children born just in China & India, despite China having had a one-child policy until very recently. That is near to twice Australia’s current population. They will all need education, jobs and want a better lifestyle as they grow and mature. In (say) 20 years maybe India will hold more people than China even, because it is growing faster. And this is not to mention other races and countries that continue to disfavour birth control and small family sizes. So these pressures on us with a large and sparsely populated land mass will continue to grow – there will be no low tides in world population growth absent the devastations of war, and I hope none of us actually want that.

    The challenge for Australia is to not only learn to cope by anticipating and adapting to these pressures, but also (if we can) actually structure our nation to benefit from them. This necessarily means (I think), for example, taking advantage of the Indo-Asian (and African, for that matter) need for education, continuing to accept that newly modernising Asia stresses our labour markets but that historically global migration can help that process if intelligently (not exploitatively) managed. Good policies would seek to average down corporate labour costs whilst simultaneously boosting productivity, such that average wage rates per head still increase. The key to that is clearly productivity improvement, and within that technology and science, and the raising of our own education standards and hence job opportunities.

    We also need to base infrastructure decisions, not on past methods, but on the forward thinking approaches of the new Asian economies. That requires long-termism and a John Bradfield like realisation of the need to project the future capacity requirements and think big and with vision in project terms, whilst controlling engineering and costs. Especially so in energy and transport.

    Melbourne needs formalised transport network pricing, to move away from sprawl tendencies, to re-invigorate urban rail by MAJOR investment so as to kick the habit of the perpetual road widening drug, and faster rail to the regions and, YES, even co-operating with Canberra on high-speed rail in order to be able to grow to the levels by 2100 that Bradfield so wisely foresaw umpteen decades ahead for Sydney.

    I recommend that readers of your blog also read some good articles in The Conversation,
    firstly, on the lessons from the rapid post-war growth of Tokyo, Five lessons from Tokyo, a city of 38m people, for Australia, a nation of 24m.

    Secondly, on the dangers of market-driven compaction in city population, Market-driven compaction is no way to build an ecocity

    Then thirdly, how distance commuting can help regions tap into city-driven growth, Commuters help regions tap into city-driven growth .

    My thesis: Victoria has plenty of room for all for quite some time if the planning and anticipation of future trends can be improved.

    1. Flynn

      Spot on, Ian. Tokyo is a fantastic city, wildly different to the dystopian nightmares of cities of a piddling 8 million people that seem to keep some people up at night. It’s a great example of what can be achieved when a society actually tries!

      Australian cities are not the quaint colonial idylls of old. It’s time to get to work actually accommodating a growing population – this will generate employment! But, as usual, everything in this country gets turned into an immigration issue where small-minded wankers can stamp their feet about it for a sweet but fleeting sense of power.

  5. mark

    Good grief. If people don’t like something why do the proponents of that thing always believe it’s a communication problem?
    The height of arrogance.

  6. P Hi

    Here’s a crazy idea. Let’s have a popular vote on how many people we want in the country and how far we’d all like our own vote to be watered down by increasing numbers of citizens

  7. Woopwoop

    Two points.
    1. It’s not only the Age. Have a look at the similarly educated middle class readers’ comments on The Conversation’s articles on the same topic. Virtually all say population growth is out of control.
    2.”Have limited understanding of the pro-immigration economic arguments” you say, rather patronisingly.
    What if people consider economic arguments just don’t trump arguments about convenience, conserving our heritage etc?

  8. John of Alphington

    Go ahead, Alan and make the case. How can you expect to win an argument without first putting it?
    “Australia will go down the gurgler if we stop 2% population growth because … “

    1. Alan Davies

      John, because I’m not trying to “win” the argument that immigration is good or bad. My purpose with this article is to draw attention to how pervasive the “we should slow immigration” view is. As I said recently, I think there should be a more open debate on population policy – see Is immigration ruining our cities?

  9. JMNO

    Northern European countries manage to have more prosperous economies without trying to fill their countries up. Perhaps we should look at them as a model rather than always following the ‘go-for’growth’ at all costs policies of the Anglophone countries. Australia has poor soils, unreliable water supplies and we are building over some of the most productive land in the well-watered parts of the country.

    And not everyone who knows something about immigration thinks high immigration is a good idea as you rather patronisingly suggest. A number of economists with their minds in a rut think that is the only way to have a decent economy but there are other points of view.

  10. Sustainable Australia

    A #SustainableAustralia includes a sustainable #environment and population.

  11. Charlie Chaplin

    Alan, it’s all very well to say we can prosper with an increasing population providing we increase infrastructure. Trouble is, we live in Australia, home of crony capitalism where the only new infrastructure spending is on projects mates can clean up on and the name of the game is to prop up FIRE, houses and holes while keeping downward pressure on wages by increasing the pool of underutilised labour by importing more people.

    I keep reading your columns, looking for the pro-immigration arguments you keep referring to, but all I find is your belief in what should be, rather than what is.

    1. Alan Davies

      Charlie Chaplin, there’s no shortage of others with greater expertise in the subject making the case for immigration; I see my remit as how to deal with it given it’s happening and seems likely to continue (at least for a while). As for crony capitalism, yes that’s an issue, but I think there are many bigger and better cities that have similar problems; it’s bad, but it’s not sufficient reason to give up and go home.

  12. Teddy

    Oh, and another thing… Its unlikely that the Age (at least not the few journalists and editors it still employs) really want their employer to have fewer customers and even less advertisers – as would happen as Melbourne stagnates or even retreats in line with their gloomy readers’ stated desires… It’s just that they’ve been sold on the idea that bad news sells, that stoking people fears and intolerance levels is good business. “Just look at all those comments!” they’ll say. “We’ve sure hit a nerve, we must be doing something right…”

    They are cutting their own throats of course. They might even be aware of their company’s bottom line concerns (Domain’s endless real estate spruiking – so dependent on ever more property buyers in the Melbourne and Sydney markets) that are keeping them in a job. But they’ll proudly proclaim their editorial independence and “integrity” and soldier on, ever onward… Yes, those ideals will be such a comfort when, after Domain has been sold, they are starring at their own redundancy cheques.

    1. Jacob HSR

      I for one would read about death and carjackings on a daily basis.

      There was a story in The Age about a kid who was going blind due to a lack of Vitamin A. That is not death but very bad and something we should all be aware of.

      Rather than what swimsuit Kim Kardashian is wearing.

      There should seriously be a death section on The Age.

  13. Teddy

    Well now, and the first comment I read here said “I am not racist but…” Alan – you invited that!

    The Age readers are being asked the wrong questions. What they need to answer is this:
    – Do they want fewer job opportunities for their own children?
    – Do they want their own living standards and quality of life to decline?
    – Do they want their neighbours, the ones with initiative, ambition and drive, to go away?
    – Do they really want the enterprising, the adventurous, the risk-takers and the innovators to leave their area, and go to other cities and countries more in keeping with their own values and outlook?
    – Do they want their shopping centres and streets to empty out and local businesses to fail?
    – Do they want to see their own communities dominated by the needs of the elderly and the infirm, while all the healthy young have gone to somewhere else where they can work and socialize with their peers?
    – Do they want their local and regional governments, responding to a lower tax base, to close the libraries, reduce expenditure on parks and community facilities, and eventually pull out of providing anything at all, as has happened in Detroit and other US cities suffering population decline?
    – I could go on, but I know I’m not going to convince anyone who holds anti-growth views…
    And there are some readers who will say “yes” to all or some of those questions above, if they are wealthy enough and not on a government pension dependent of a increasing tax base, They’ll just shrug and say “I’m all right mate, bugger the rest of you!” They will be the “left progressive” comment writers on Crikey, the Guardian and the Age’s website, and (in Sydney) the SMH. All will be in furious agreement with one another: “There are too many people around who want what I’ve got!”

    1. Alan Davies


      Well now, and the first comment I read here said “I am not racist but…” Alan – you invited that!

      What, by writing on the topic of immigration? By highlighting how widespread the “we must slow immigration” view is? Nah, I wrote about an important issue that needs to be discussed; I can’t (and shouldn’t) do anything about those who invite themselves.

      1. Teddy

        Yeah I wasn’t really chastising you, and I do wish this important topic could be discussed sanely. I usually avoid the comment section of any population story, they are just too depressing. And its especially distressing that Nimby-selfishness, conservatism, nostalgia for the past, intolerance (many don’t even bother to disguise their prejudices) and gloomy negativity are all now part of the left wing song book (Crikey, Guardian, Age, the Greens, most of the ALP) too. I’m a left voter myself, but I don’t stand with this lot.

        1. Chris

          “I do wish this important topic could be discussed sanely”. The definition of insanity is trying the same thing and expecting a different result. Better to just vote for Trump or Hanson and watch the bonfire.

          If gloomy negativity was part of the lefts play book the Greens might have a chance. Unfortunately they’ve been captured by wealthy inner city types consigning Australia’s left to yet more dismal failure.

  14. Lasso

    This article is just another bait piece by Alan Davies – whose writing is so dismissive and out of touch that I am seriously considering dumping my Crikey subscription. Well said Chris – most Asian cities are overpopulated shit holes and there’s nothing racist in calling out overpopulated, polluted and corrupt cities as shit holes. Why MUST Australian cities turn out this way??

    1. Alan Davies

      Lasso, no need to worry about your sub; The Urbanist isn’t behind the paywall. I wonder though if you’ve read the article, because it highlights population growth as a key issue.

  15. Chris

    The time to slow population growth was a decade ago. Melbourne is currently being smashed by both internal and external migration and personally I don’t see how having the Chinese bid up property prices and clog up roads (In expensive German made cars) is in my (or this countries) economic interests. If their country is a polluted, corrupt, over populated shit hole then too bad, it’s not Australia’s problem, except that politicians seem intent on making it ours.

    Anyway… what I’m saying is that I think that excessive population growth is one of the more corrosive political issues that Australia’s political class haven’t twigged to yet (or refuse to publicly acknowledge). If nothing else then the gap between public perceptions and the policies of the major parties is trashing confidence in the political system. And I say all this as a lefty seriously considering a protest vote for One Nation in the future…

    1. Jacob HSR

      You can vote for the Sustainable Australia Party.

      Rudd gave out $900 cheques to simulate the economy because there were not enough jobs to go around. But then why print 457 visas like crazy? The 457 visa is a rort used to destroy our careers and destroy the wages of Aussies/Kiwis who still have a job.

      Japan has a shrinking population and a 2% unemployment rate. How is that a bad thing? Sounds like it is easy to get a job in Japan.

      There should be a $50k/year tax on each 457 visa to stop the rort.

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